a sermon based on Mark 1:9-11 & 14-22
This is a very special day, with a baptism and with new members joining our church. The Annual Congregational Meeting will commence as soon as the worship service is done. So let’s get into the sermon…
After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus picked up his theme… and began saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (The Old English word “gospel” simply means “Good News”.)
The Good News that Jesus brought was this: that God knows you (and me), and loves you and me (and all people) with the intense, personal, intervening kind of love like a parent has for their child.
When Jesus would speak about God (or pray to God), he used the word “Abba”, which means Father in Hebrew. In fact, when we are first introduced to Jesus, Mark writes: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) “Son” is a metaphor of personal relationship: such as the relations between a parent and a child. And then (as we heard in the first Scripture reading) as Jesus was being baptized by John: when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11) It was like getting a love note, or a valentine.
So the Good News that Jesus brought -- his “gospel” -- was that the God who made you, knows you, and loves you… like the love a mother or father has toward their own child. Jesus brought that kind of news to people who felt “set-aside” in their society (for one reason or another); judged or shunned by the more religious-types; lonely, perhaps. Jesus brought his gospel to people who felt put-down, put-out, or put-upon… Jesus’ brought the news that it is God’s inner-most, ut-most, heart-felt desire that all people be included in God’s kingdom. No more “us” insiders and “them” outsiders. This Gospel is Good News for those people who felt like left-outs and left-overs -- people who wanted a new direction in life, or needed to be reconciled, or healed, or to be forgiven.
I am taking the time this morning to make sure we are clear about Jesus’ Gospel on this day of new members joining and when we hold our Annual Meeting. Before we do any business as a church, we need to know what business we are in! We need to know Jesus -- what he taught and what he did -- if we presume to call ourselves “Christian.” We modern-day disciples -- as much as those four fishermen we met in the second Scripture reading -- need to know just who we are following.
Jesus once said that “a disciple (or student) is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” (Luke 6:40) That’s my primary goal as your Minister: that each of us knows Jesus, our teacher and role model, well enough to replicate in our lives the effect He had on people in His world. When we join the church, each of us makes the promise to (as best we are able) “take Jesus as our example, his Spirit as our spirit, and his Way as our own.”
The first thing Jesus did, after John the Baptist was arrested, was to pick up the mantle himself and start proclaiming the same message as John had done: “The time is fulfilled. (that is, the time is now!) The Kingdom of God is at hand. (God is right here, right now… right on!) Repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
It sounds simple enough, but this was a bold thing on Jesus’ part. You see, that was the very same kind of preaching that had gotten the Baptist into trouble with the authorities. (!) “The time is now” – “carpe diem” -- seize the day. God’s Realm is present and active, here and now! Heaven has opened up and come down; God is nearby. “It’s time to repent” -- which simply means change directions, change our minds, change our attitudes, change our behavior -- metanoia (the Greek word for “repent”) means “turn around” -- and believe the good news -- evangelion in Greek -- the Gospel.
Without going into detail at this time as to what Jesus meant by “God’s Kingdom,” or precisely what behaviors he felt ought to be “changed,” I was struck by the fact that he picked up an existing movement -- the Baptists -- which had suddenly become leaderless.
Since, Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan (Mark 1:9), it’s not like Jesus was an outsider. For all appearances, he was just one of the many tens of thousands of disciples John the Baptist had recruited. But Jesus intended to take it further.
Mark tells us that John the Baptist had appeared in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) John the Baptist pointed people toward the future, anticipating “one who is coming after me… more powerful than I.” (Mark 1: 7) We Christians say that the person John was pointing toward was Jesus.
Jesus picks up where the Baptist leaves off, but he makes the future expectation that John was talking about a present reality. It’s no longer about God’s Kingdom coming soon (to a theater near you)… Jesus says it has already begun! “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the good news.”
The first lesson I take from this is to be clear about your purpose: articulate your goal right up front … in 25 words or less (Jesus uses 17). The mission statement of my church in Torrance was: “We are an open community of faith dedicated to following and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We seek to be an accepting and affirming church family that welcomes and reaches out to serve all people.” (36 words) The Mission Statement of our congregation here in Alpena is printed on the front of every Sunday bulletin (and has been for the past six years): “We welcome people as they are, share Jesus as He is, and serve our community and the world in love.” (20 words) That’s what we do here!
One of our core values is stated at the top of the Sunday bulletin: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Another is stated on our UCC flag (in the oval around our logo): “That They May All Be One.” (Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21)
Jesus was publicly connected to the Baptist movement in Judea. There was fervor and ferment among the common people in response to the firery expectations that John’s preaching had fanned -- and it turned out to be a dangerous place. After John was arrested is when Jesus began; he brought the Baptist’s message up from Judea north to Galilee.
Step one, on the path of leadership: Know what you are about. Know what business we are in. Be able to state it succinctly. Be clear & courageous. In other words, as the Nike brand puts it: Just do it.
And then, as a second step: if you’re to be a leader, you’ll have to have followers. (Duh!) In some ways, we could say that Jesus’ actual “leadership” began when he called his first followers -- Simon & his brother Andrew, and then James & his brother John -- four fishermen who left their nets, left their boats, left their father, to follow him.
Now, we don’t know if those guys had a history with Jesus, or if they were just itching to get away from their stinking jobs and freed up from their family ties. (!) We know nothing about why these four fellows said yes to Jesus’ invitation to join him as they “fish for people.” They just drop their nets and walk away.
Simon and Andrew -- the first set of brothers we encounter -- were caught in the act of throwing a net out onto the water because they were fishermen. It is likely that they were fishermen because their father before them had been a fisherman, and his father before him, and so on. Fishing is what they do… day in and day out. It’s their job… their career.
They rely on the fish they catch not only for food on the table, but also to bring their catch to the marketplace to put money in their purse. We later discover that Simon Peter has a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30), so he is old enough to have been married. We don’t know about Andrew.
The next set of brothers Jesus called -- James and John -- were also fishermen. They were found a little farther along… in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their nets. I presume these boys were younger than Simon Peter & Andrew, since they were still with their dad.
Rev. Jennifer Moland-Kovash, of All Saints Lutheran Church in Palatine, Illinois, writes in last week’s The Christian Century magazine (Jan. 15, 2020, vol. 137, No. 2, page 19): The conversation between the parents that night was likely one for the ages. “What do you mean, the boys aren’t coming home? They’ve followed that wandering rabbi, the one whose cousin is in jail? You’re pulling my leg, right Z?” Is it disbelief? Shock? Outrage? What is the reaction of these parents whose children have left everything on the shore?
Jesus calls these brothers to follow him. He doesn’t say he’s going to make them teachers or rabbis. He doesn’t say that they’ll be preachers or evangelists or baptizers. He says “Come, follow me, and you will do the same thing you’ve been doing for generations: fishing! Except now you’ll be fishers of people.” Jesus speaks to them in a language they’ll understand and gives them a job they can do. They know how to fish! (unquote)
We don’t know what these first four followers imagined that task would entail -- certainly they would not be using fishing nets and boats; hopefully they’re not planning to sucker people into swallowing bait (hook, line, & sinker).
The impetuous action on the part of these first four disciples (who dropped everything to follow Jesus) is not explained in any way by the Gospel writer Mark. These characters just appear out of nowhere and are ready to give their all in response to Jesus’ call. (You can speculate all you want… and in so doing, you’ll learn more about yourself and your own motives than it will tell us anything about these four guys.)
What we do know, though, is that Jesus saw them, and he called them. So, that’s the second leadership lesson I take from this story: If you want something, you’ve got to ask for it.
Jesus didn’t just “walk on by” trusting some supernatural attraction to occur -- drawn by his charisma or his celebrity status. He "CALLED" them. He asked these four fishermen -- two sets of brothers -- to follow him. In time, these four fishermen would become some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples (most productive apostles) in spreading the message after Jesus’ death. But we don’t know that when we first meet them.
In the same way that Jesus had picked up the mantle from John, after King Herod silenced the Baptist, these young fishermen will carry forward Jesus’ movement (Christianity) after he is executed.
So, a third lesson I learn from this is: if you feel that what you are involved with -- the work into which you are investing your life (your blood, sweat, & tears; all those hours of labor and sleepless nights) -- is worth sustaining when you are gone, you’ll need others to "catch the spirit" and carry it forward. Jesus knew that God’s coming kingdom was not about him -- it was about God and the world… It was a movement intended to benefit all of humanity for all of eternity. It is the same calling which we here in Alpena (more than 2,000 years later!) still carry forward.
Jesus was about 30 years old. Having seen what happened to the Baptist, Jesus knew that the authorities would soon be on his trail as well. Jesus was going to give it his all – there’s no question of that! He would proclaim the good news of God’s presence, call the people to repent and offer them forgiveness of sin, until he (in turn) would be arrested and executed.
Jesus was prepared to invest his very life -- with no holds barred, steadfast in the face of every opposition and regardless of any danger. But he also knew that his ministry might be only a year (or two, or three tops) before his disciples would have to do it on their own.
He had to get others involved in his endeavor … or else risk the movement dying when he died. If Jesus wants his Gospel Community to survive (hopefully, to thrive!) into the future beyond his death, it must be carried on broader shoulders than his alone. (!) Our shoulders must be able to take up our crosses if Christianity is to continue to progress in our day. As stated in our Article of Faith (which we read): “We affirm the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.”
But I want us to realize that what Jesus is modeling for us (in calling these disciples) applies to other vocations apart from the Church as well. It’s not just about becoming a preacher (like me), but becoming a better teacher (a school superintendent), a project manager, an account executive, a sales person… whatever you do, day in & day out.
Discipleship -- following Jesus “as best you are able” includes “resisting oppression and evil” and “showing love and justice” -- that’s the way each one of us “witnesses to the work and the words of Jesus Christ.” (Those words are from the liturgy when New Members join us.)
The point is: either we recruit disciples to carry things forward, or we let it collapse when we’re gone. Jesus knew this… long, long ago! (Gather a team! Coach them… and set them in motion to go forward.)
When you need someone else to be involved in your endeavor (because you believe in it and you want it to succeed), don’t be shy; don’t be coy. Follow the example of Jesus and ask people to join you. Even as I am asking you all to be (for First Congregational) a “Peter, Andrew, James, and John”, who will step up to the task of growing our church. You know the enterprise in which we are engaged -- you know the business we are in! “I will make you fish for people,” said Jesus!
So, let's do it! May that be our 2020 vision. Amen? Amen.